Long Fly Ball

A sporadically updated chronicle of Dave Becker's summer 2005 ramble among Minor League ballparks.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Posted by Hello

Friday, May 27, 2005

Howdy, and welcome to my experiment in vanity publishing. I'll be using these pixels to document a two-month road trip visiting Minor League ballparks around the U.S., something I've wanted to do for a long time and finally can thanks to a confluence of good and bad fortune.

The trip should start the first week in June and gradually wind its way east from California. My hope is to post a few paragraphs and a photo or two from each park I visit, but we'll see how time and WiFi access co-operate.

My hope originally had been to use the trip as fodder for a newspaper sports column, but nobody bit. So to get this started and introduce you to the idea, here's the introductory column I tried to pitch:

Take me out the burgs

You'll see 'em in the programs, Web sites and stadium walkways of every Minor League team with a whiff of marketing sense--a section honoring former players who went on to the Majors.

This, you will be led to believe, is the point of Minor League ball. Tomorrow's stars today! The raw talent of the future! Catch 'em while they'll still sign autographs and act reasonably polite to the media!

Phooey. I've caught hundreds of Minor League games over the last 20 years, and the closest I've come to seeing a future star is a few pitches by Todd Van Poppel, at the start of his long career of hoping from AAA affiliates to Major League teams with sufficiently desperate holes in the bullpen.

Nope, if you want to see the future of baseball, you're better off hanging around hotel lobbies during spring training than making the rounds of farm teams.

So why am I preparing to spend the summer doing precisely the latter?

As you read this, I'll be packing the station wagon with clothes, provisions and game schedules for at least a hundred teams, covering everything from the neon excess of Las Vegas to the tranquil forests of Wausau, Wis. I plan to catch as many games in as many stadiums at as many levels of professionalism as I can over the next three months.

The trip is something I've been dreaming about for years, and now that I've put together the resources to put the workday routine on hold for a few months, I can barely wait to get started. Just looking at the league schedules, stadium descriptions and team histories I've accumulated makes me want to hit the highway now.

Wait too long, and the Idaho Falls Chukars might raise enough community donations to replace their fine old American Legion pit with a shiny new ballpark. I might miss "Faith Night," the Oklahoma Redhawks' pioneering attempt to win souls for Jesus while the body waits in line for brewskis. The Surprise, Ariz., affiliate of Pat Sajak's new Golden Baseball League might actually follow through with fan suggestions to name the team the Desert Penguins.

Judging from the funny looks I'm getting from friends, neighbors and co-workers when I mention stuff like that, I'm beginning to understand the appeal of this journey may not be universal. In fact, the reactions have been more along the lines of, "Why would any moderately sane person blow their one opportunity for a sabbatical doing that?"

I could give you some reasonably convincing hooey about rediscovering the real game behind professional baseball's newly tarnished exterior, learning what makes the red states so...red, the impossibility of finding a decent biscuits-and-gravy breakfast in San Francisco.

But for an honest answer, I'll have to tell you a story from a few years ago.

Unknown to me, it was Developmentally Disabled Adults Appreciation Night at the Stockton Ports, and a large contingent from a local facility was in the stands struggling to make some sense of the activity. I was a few rows ahead of young woman who didn't appear to be tracking the mechanics of the game too well but was enjoying the heck out of the atmosphere.

After three or four innings, it started to dawn on her that this was an environment where not only was it OK to yell in public, that kind of thing was encouraged. She became entranced by the chants of "We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher" and "Gimme a break, Steve!" (Bonus Minor League advantage: You get to heckle the umpire by name!)

It took her a couple of innings to work up the nerve to join in. But around the middle of the sixth, she slowly left her seat, walked to a position just above the dugout, took a deep breath and began assaulting the visiting pitcher with the most piercing, off-key rendition of "Happy birthday to you" anyone had ever heard.

And the kicker was it worked! Rattled the poor slob on the mound so badly that he bobbled his way to a couple of walks before giving up a sloppy run that helped the Ports pad their lead.

That, more or less, is what I'm looking for--the serendipity that sometimes happens when you pack a few hundred people with nothing better to do into the same frail venue as a few dozen men who realize one game more or less isn't going to make or break them, but it'd sure be nice to move up to a team with hot showers. Mix 'em together with equal amounts of love of the game and sheer habit, and every so often you get a bit of magic. If you don't, tomorrow's another night in another city, and aren't those dizzy bat races a hoot.

And did I mention the vague but very real psychological comfort of sticking to cities too small to merit a stop on Jose Canseco's book tour?